I’ve been mindspewing creature-designing and worldbuilding ideas in preparation for writing Oh, The Inhumanity!, an e-book on creating truly non-humanoid species, and I think I feel the tiny little flicker of a would-be rant guttering in my chest.
See, I have a pet peeve. Non-humans should be non-humans. In science fiction and fantasy alike, most of your non-humans are what I would consider humanoids – symmetrical bipedal races with human-parallel physiology and psychology. Some different clothing, a bit taller or shorter (or skinnier or wider – hi, elves and dwarves), pointy ears, colorful skin, and an accented version of the common tongue, and voilà! You have a humanoid. We, as human readers, can relate to the humanity of the race and its individuals, while (hopefully) appreciating the differences in body and culture.
That’s fine, that’s cool. That’s a distinct class of non-humans that are purposefully similar to humans for very understandable reasons. They’re the easiest to work with in fiction and most relatable for our audience.
When a book introduces a giant quadrupedal predator who still thinks like a civilized, social human, I get my hackles up. C’mon, guys. They aren’t human. Give them a difference. Let’s broaden our minds, shall we?
Imagine, if you will, a human being born with a set of animal behaviors and instincts. This is still a human in body and will be raised as a human, in human society, but its base instincts are some animal instead of evolved monkey. This person is inherently, innately, undeniably inhuman. If he’s a tiger, he’s going to have to balance social tendencies from his human rearing with completely antisocial tendencies from being a lone predator. There will be immutable qualities in the core of his psyche that are not human.
Imagine, if you will, a humanoid born into a human society. Even if she’s raised as a human, she’s going to have different base instincts and behavioral tendencies, as well as some moderately different physiological needs, depending on her specific race. Even though she will be effectively multicultural, she won’t lose her innate inhumanity that is her birthright as a non-human. She’ll likely experience internal (and possibly external) conflict over her adopted culture and her instinctual heritage.
Now, imagine a humanoid culture in its infancy. This species is now at the apex of their physical evolution and progressing into civilization and probably technology. For the sake of this example, say they have never met humans – they’re in a secluded land, or on a different planet. They don’t have our monkey instincts; they have their own. How differently would they develop, even if they have human-parallel bodies and neurological structures, when their core is unshakably inhuman?
Do I really need to ask you to imagine how different a non-humanoid race would be from us?
A Korat is not human. They do not have opposable thumbs; they do not stand on two legs. They have fur, claws, sharp teeth, and a predator’s set of movement-oriented senses. A human can gaze into a sunset and marvel at the incredible masterpiece of color and light; a Korat will look at a sunset and notice far less of the stationary detail. A human will see a blur of dull color in the underbrush and wonder if he imagined it; a Korat will watch a rabbit run and be able to count its strides out of the corner of his eye without even focusing. A human has different social needs than a Korat, different emotional and instinctual reactions to pain and fear and anger and sadness, and different ways of expressing himself. A human may react to danger with noisy aggression or cowering fear, while a Korat may react to the same situation by becoming completely still, alert, and poised to move – without any emotional investment.
Even when I find inhuman non-humans in fiction, I often find cases of human-envy. We are humans, so it’s natural that we’re human-centric. But Korats don’t pine for opposable thumbs or a bipedal gait. Korats don’t wish they were technologically advanced. In fact, Korats are Korat-centric – surprise! – and have a lot of racial pride. They like how their species is, and they don’t feel any inclination to become less like a Korat and more like anything else.
Humanoids certainly have a strong place in fiction, but I’d love to see more non-humanoids take a shining role with their differences and, yes, their incomprehensible alienness.
Have you ever created a non-human race that was truly inhuman? If not, why?